Sometimes, when I wake up, I don't know where I am. For a moment I'm disoriented and uneasy, and I have to lie there until it comes to me.
Occasionally when I'm asked a question, I begin to answer, but then I forget the subject. I struggle to remember directions. There are moments when I'm driving, and I have to ask, "Do I go left, or right?"
I tend not to remember what hotel room I'm in. I don't remember what time my appointments are for.
I don't remember records, final scores, and statistics. Numbers have a strange slipperiness; they suggest nothing. If you ask me how many games we won in 1998, or what happened in the 2008 NCAA national championship game, I struggle to remember which one it was.
But if you tell me who was on that team, or show me an old team photo, I'll remember: "That's Linda Ray—she didn't play much but she was a great teammate, and smart. Biochemistry major."
Memories are made up of episodes and engagements with the people you love. The things I struggle with—times, dates, schedules—are things you could as easily read on a digital watch or a calendar. But the facts don't begin to sum up the events stamped most deeply on me. Nor do the numbers that are so often used to describe my career: Thirty-eight years as the head coach at Tennessee. Eight national championships. An all-time record of 1,098 victories, and a 100 percent graduation rate—the real point of all that winning. Twenty-seven successful years of marriage, followed by one shattering divorce. Six crushing miscarriages compensated for by one matchless, peerless son, for whom I'm grateful to God. Two devastating and incurable medical diagnoses.
Six years ago, I was all but immobilized with crippling pain, which turned out to be an aggressive case of rheumatoid arthritis. The meds allowed me to keep working, but it wasn't exactly a delightful cocktail.
Then, in the late spring of 2011, I was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. From what I'm told, an unnatural buildup of proteins formed a gluelike plaque between my nerve cells and synapses, interfering with my ability to remember and to reason. There is no cure—it's irreversible. An estimated five million–plus Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease, and another 15 million caregivers, spouses, and children are affected by it.
Next: Some days are better than others